Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia: Martyrdom and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity

Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia: Martyrdom and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity

by Kyle Smith

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It is widely believed that the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity politicized religious allegiances, dividing the Christian Roman Empire from the Zoroastrian Sasanian Empire and leading to the persecution of Christians in Persia. This account, however, is based on Greek ecclesiastical histories and Syriac martyrdom narratives that date to centuries after the fact. In this groundbreaking study, Kyle Smith analyzes diverse Greek, Latin, and Syriac sources to show that there was not a single history of fourth-century Mesopotamia. By examining the conflicting hagiographical and historical evidence, Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia presents an evocative and evolving portrait of the first Christian emperor, uncovering how Syriac Christians manipulated the image of their western Christian counterparts to fashion their own political and religious identities during this century of radical change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520289604
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/19/2016
Series: Transformation of the Classical Heritage , #57
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Kyle Smith is Assistant Professor of Historical Studies and Religion at the University of Toronto and the translator of The Martyrdom and History of Blessed Simeon bar Sabba'e.

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Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia

Martyrdom and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity

By Kyle Smith


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96420-4


Patronizing Persians


FROM THE OUTSET OF THE fourth and final book of his panegyrical Life of Constantine (VC), the Roman bishop and church historian Eusebius of Caesarea is keen to present the first Christian emperor as a patron and philanthropist of boundless generosity. Constantine, he tells us, insisted on "persistently providing repeated and continuous good works of every kind for all the inhabitants of every province alike." So generous was the emperor that none who sought his favor was ever "disappointed in his expectations." While Constantine bestowed rank, honor, and other benefits of land and riches upon those closest to him, he also "showed general fatherly concern for all." According to Eusebius, the emperor granted formal titles to so many citizens that his bureaucrats had to invent new honorifics just so Constantine could "promote more persons."

The emperor slashed taxes on landowners. He readjusted the financial contributions required from those who complained "that their estates were overburdened." He even granted the losing party in the disputes he adjudicated money or land from his personal holdings. This was so that no one who had been in his presence should ever have reason to "depart disappointed and bitter."

Toward those who did not serve Rome, Constantine was less beneficent. His predecessors kept the incursions of the Goths and other barbarians at bay through tributes and annual payments, but such an extortionate system was unacceptable to Constantine. Through brute force, or its threat, he compelled barbarian tribes to submit to Rome. As a result of the emperor's efforts to convert the barbarians "from a lawless animal existence to one of reason and law," Eusebius says that God granted Constantine "victories over all the nations."

Constantine's victories over enemies abroad and challengers at home did not go unnoticed. His name soon became renowned throughout the world. According to Eusebius, his court had "constant diplomatic visitors who brought valuable gifts from their homelands." Foreign emissaries streamed to pay homage to Constantine in such droves that outside the palace gates there formed a long line of distinctive-looking barbarians wearing exotic clothes, strange haircuts, and long beards. Those who waited in the line came from every corner of the world: some had red faces, some complexions "whiter than snow," while still others were "blacker than ebony or pitch."

In the context of these diplomatic visits to the seat of Roman power, Eusebius explains that the Persian king "also saw fit to seek recognition by Constantine through an embassy" and therefore sent a representative bearing "tokens of friendly compact." What Eusebius says the Persian king received from Constantine in return for his friendly tokens is the focus of this chapter.

As with other emissaries, Constantine treated the Persian ambassador well and sent him home with a successfully negotiated peace treaty and gifts whose splendor far outshone those that the ambassador had brought with him. Yet the gifts the emperor sent to the Persian king were just material displays of Rome's power and Constantine's greatness. Much more important was what accompanied them: a letter from Constantine.

Constantine's letter to Shapur, which is translated in appendix A, is an especially important, and exceptionally rare, source for Roman-Persian relations in the fourth century. Although letters between Roman emperors and their generals on the eastern frontier were surely written, none survive. And, as Fergus Millar points out, the only extant letters between a Roman emperor and a foreign king are those that have been reproduced in fourth-century literary sources. These include an exchange of two letters between Shapur and Constantine's son Constantius in 358, which Ammianus Marcellinus preserves in his Res Gestae, and Constantine's letter to Shapur, for which we possess no response. Although several late antique sources recycle Constantine's letter, it is found first and most fully in Eusebius's Life of Constantine. In Millar's understandably cautious estimation, all three of these fourth-century letters "are of uncertain authenticity."

When Constantine's letter to Shapur is accepted as authentic, it is typically viewed as the document underlying centuries of strife for the Christians of Persia. A cursory examination of its contents reveals why. In the section of the letter that Eusebius has preserved, the emperor spends most of his time telling Shapur about the power of the Christian god. Constantine speaks about persecutors of Christians in his letter too — oddly, however, not persecutors in fourth-century Persia but earlier persecutors in the Roman Empire. Constantine never refers to any of his predecessors or rivals by name, but it is unquestionably the Roman emperor Valerian who is the focus of his ire. Valerian reigned from 253 to 260, was well known as a persecutor of Christians, and, most notably insofar as his role in Constantine's letter is concerned, was taken captive by Shapur I (the Great) while campaigning against the Sasanians. Valerian died as Shapur's captive, and he holds the ignominious distinction of being the only Roman emperor ever taken as a prisoner of war.

In this chapter, I consider the content of Constantine's letter, its probable date and context, and the debates over its authenticity. I am especially concerned with two additional questions: first, whether the letter can (or should) be understood as a cause of persecution in Sasanian Persia, and second, how Constantine deploys Valerian's capture and death to write a new, Christian history of the Roman Empire. This chapter will not entirely resolve the first question. Constantine's letter to Shapur has a complex transmission history and, in any case, is a recurring theme in several chapters. For example, in chapter 2 I discuss how ecclesiastical historians writing long after the emperor's death reread and entirely recontextualized Constantine's letter, and in chapter 6 I look at how a Syriac martyrdom narrative from the sixth century constructed a new account of it.

I propose that the emperor's letter was written to communicate to the Persian king how Constantine was different from, and much stronger than, previous rulers of Rome. Its date is central to its interpretation. Contrary to what some sources suggest, there is no evidence (either internal or external) that the letter was written immediately before Constantine's death and the ensuing war between Rome and Persia, which began in 337. Rather, it seems to date to a period of peace between the two empires, with the most plausible time of composition being 324/25, after Constantine had become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire and when the many supplicants and ambassadors to him were arriving before the imperial gates. Altogether, the date, context, and content of the letter suggest that it should be read primarily as a reconfiguration of divine support for Roman kingship in the person of Constantine. The emperor's letter is undeniably unique, but it did not touch off a persecution or lead to a religious war.


Eusebius testifies that Constantine wrote the letter to Shapur himself, in Latin. Presumably, the copy entrusted to the Persian ambassador was not the autograph but a Greek translation. Greek was known among the literati of the Sasanian Empire, as several trilingual (Parthian, Middle Persian, Greek) inscriptions from the Sasanian period attest. And it was in Greek, not Latin, Eusebius says, that the letter was "in circulation among us" and has been transcribed in the VC, so as to be "more readily understood by the reader."

Essentially, Constantine's letter is an announcement that the emperor of Rome had the support of the Christian god. By itself, such a proclamation of personal religiosity would have been odd, but the letter is more than just an imperial statement of Constantine's Christianity. The emperor goes much further. He regales the Persian king with lurid reminders of the consequences that had befallen those who persecuted Christians, and he suggests that if Shapur is wise, he will care for all the Christians living in the lands of the East. Intriguingly, such admonishments are made in rather symbolic fashion, using the emperor Valerian as the model to avoid.

According to Eusebius, Constantine learned from the Persian ambassador "that the churches of God were multiplying among the Persians and that many thousands of people were being gathered into the flocks of Christ." As Eusebius tells it, Constantine knew nothing about the rapid growth and wide diffusion of Christianity in Persia, given that he says in his letter, as if in response to recent news, "how pleasing it is for me to hear that the most important parts of Persia too are richly adorned [with Christians]!" In his introduction to the letter, Eusebius underscores just how happy Constantine was to learn that there were Christians in Persia and that the faith was flourishing there, explaining that the emperor "as one who had general responsibility for [Christians] everywhere ... took prudent measures on behalf of them all." Constantine's concern for Christians knew no bounds. He took personal responsibility for all Christians in all places. Even those who were subjects of a foreign king.

The Contents of Constantine's Letter

Eusebius quotes Constantine's letter at length, but he cannot have preserved all of it. The letter reads as if he has begun quoting from it midstream. He fails to include any formal opening or greeting to the addressee, literary elements that must have been present under the most basic conventions of late ancient epistolary writing. The absence of a heading or a greeting, "such as we have with every other letter of Constantine in Eusebius's account," leads Averil Cameron and Stuart Hall to conclude, "This may suggest that Eusebius has this document from a secondary history or source."

The first line of the letter that Eusebius quotes begins a long confessional section in which Constantine explains that he guards "the divine faith," participates "in the light of truth," and acknowledges "the most holy religion [threskeia]." More forebodingly (at least in terms of how the letter has traditionally been read), Constantine tactfully but clearly proclaims that he has "the power of this God as ally." He declares that his army carries the sign of God on its shoulders and that, by means of his allegiance to the divine, he has "raised up the whole world step by step with sure hopes of salvation."

Constantine portrays the victories that God has granted him as therapeutic and restorative, implying that his rise to sole rule over Roman lands has healed the world of its wounds, reviving it "like a patient after treatment" and freeing it from "the slavery of such great tyrants." The "great tyrants" to whom he refers are not foreign kings, Goths or Persians, but his own predecessors and rivals — persecutors of Christians. Contrary to these haughtily tyrannical emperors, the God of the Christians "takes pleasure in works of kindness and gentleness." Yet this God is quick to shatter "all ostentatious power" and destroy the proud and the arrogant. Rome's pagan rulers were defeated, Constantine explains, because God "values highly righteous empire" and thus "strengthens it with his own resources, and guards the imperial mind with the calm of peace." Addressing Shapur as "my brother," Constantine insists that he is justified and unmistaken "in confessing this one God the Author and Father of all." The Roman emperor makes a point of establishing a new era by directly contrasting himself with "many of those who have reigned here" (the Roman Empire), who, "seduced by insane errors," denied God and persecuted his followers.

Up to this point, the letter seems to be mainly the self-aggrandizing bluster of a king who is thanking his divine patron while touting his own prowess on the battlefield. There is nothing particularly strange or novel about this, except perhaps for the considerable amount of time that Constantine spends on the topic. The emperor's rhetoric about the divine goes beyond the more perfunctory, but equally self-serving, recognition of the gods by Shapur himself, decades later, in his letter to Constantius of 358. According to Ammianus, Shapur identifies himself by citing his fraternal relationship to the heavens, beginning, "Shapur, King of Kings, partner with the Stars, brother of the Sun and Moon," but then formally greets Constantius and promptly turns to the business at hand.

Constantine, by contrast, scrupulously details his relationship to the divine and explains how his alliance with his god distinguishes him from the earlier (impious) rulers of Rome. It takes quite some time for him to explain to Shapur why he is waxing on about his love for "the most holy religion" and the god who so majestically carried his armies to victory. In fact, all the preliminary sections that survive of Constantine's letter are a series of reminders of what happened to those who persecuted "the people devoted to God." Only near the end of the letter does he utter the name "Christian" and thus reveal to Shapur the identity of the nameless god and the unspecified faith that he has been extolling at such length. After all this pomp and brass, Constantine finally concedes — at what Eusebius makes out to be the close of the letter — that his "whole concern" is "for them," adding, by way of explanation, "I mean of course the Christians."

Assuming that Shapur received Constantine's letter, one cannot help but wonder what the Persian king would have made of it. The Persian ambassador, having spent some time in the Roman Empire, may have been key to helping his ruler understand the universalizing claims that the Roman emperor was making. Constantine singles out a specific group of people in Persia for special consideration after proclaiming to Shapur that his own military successes are thanks to the god whom these people worship. At the same time that Constantine praises Shapur because Persia is "richly adorned" with Christians, he reminds him of what happens to those who persecute Christians. At the same time that he glorifies the goodness of the Christian god, he rails against the errors of non-Christians and the sickness of the cultic sacrifices of his predecessors, claiming that such perversions have "overthrown many of the nations and whole peoples."

More than anything else, Constantine's letter is driven by the persistent sense that benefits accrue to those who support Christians (or at least refrain from persecuting them), while dreadful consequences await those who treat Christians poorly. Yet even given this, it is imperative to note that Constantine's letter is neither an indictment of Shapur nor a critique of the king's gods. Constantine never suggests that he suspects Shapur of persecuting the Christians in his realm. To the contrary, he specifically grants Shapur authority over the Christians of Persia. He is clear to indicate his pleasure in hearing that the choicest parts of Persia are overflowing with Christians, and he attempts to secure their continued safety through rhetorical persuasion and fraternal cajoling. The close of Constantine's letter even rings with a tone of congratulatory and communal well-wishing: "May the very best come to you therefore, and at the same time the best for them, since they also are yours." The emperor continues in this vein, saying, "These [Christians] therefore, since you are so great, I entrust to you, putting their very persons in your hands, because you too are renowned for piety. Love them in accordance with your own humanity. For you will give enormous satisfaction both to yourself and to us by keeping faith."

Constantine's language at the end of his letter may sound condescending, but a patronal attitude toward Christians everywhere is precisely the one that he intends to adopt — or, at least, that Eusebius intends to fashion for him in the VC. From Constantine's point of view, Shapur should understand the Christians of Persia as a divine gift to his empire — a gift more splendid than any of those being delivered to him by his returning ambassador.


Excerpted from Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia by Kyle Smith. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Constantine and the Writing of Fourth-Century History


1 • Patronizing Persians: Constantine’s Letter to Shapur II
2 • Constantine’s Crusade: The Emperor’s Last Days and the Persian Campaign
3 • Rereading Nisibis: Narrating the Battle for Roman Mesopotamia


4 • On War and Persecution: Aphrahat the Persian Sage and the Martyrdom and History of Blessed Simeon bar Sabba'e
5 • The Church of the East and the Territorialization of Christianity
6 • Memories of Constantine in the Acts of the Persian Martyrs

Appendix A. Constantine’s Letter to Shapur: Eusebius’s Life of Constantine IV.8–14
Appendix B. Martyrdom of the Captives of Beth Zabdai
Appendix C. Martyrdom of Abbot Barshebya, Ten Fellow Brothers, and One Magus


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